a conversation with James Gleick      


Bold Type: "What Just Happened" chronicles changes in the Internet. What advancements in technology took you by surprise?

James Gleick: Why, the whole thing!

Surprise seems to have been my basic mode. Of course, some of the time, as a columnist I was also required to be savvy and prescient. Still, I think the continual amazement and wonder of the last decade's technological upheavals were most of the fun.

By the way, "changes in the Internet" is a bit of an understatement, isn't it? One minute the Internet wasn't there; the next minute it was. We really do forget how fast everything changed.

BT: In several of these essays you revisit Y2K, the averted computer disaster. This seems to have happened light years ago.

JG: In fact it was just yesterday. And it wasn't an averted disaster—it was a real disaster. The disaster was in the nature of mass hysteria: that billions of dollars were needlessly drained from the world's technology budgets; that the press and the government went collectively nuts; and that the second it was over, it all seemed like a bad dream.

Remember how the economy was supposed to collapse? Planes were supposed to crash? People were storing water and batteries and ammunition in their basement bunkers?

I took an iconoclastic view of all this at the time—specifically, in January 1999, with eleven months to go. I was right. I still believe there are lessons to be learned from this strange episode.

BT: You also address bugs, those pesky glitches in programs. With the growing understanding of computers and technology are we close to eliminating these types of computer problems? And why?

JG: As for bugs, no we're not close to eliminating them. You know this. It's hard to say why in a few words. I have some theories. As you see in the book, it's one of my favorite topics. Or recurring nightmares. Take your pick.

BT: You address privacy issues and surveillance in these essays with the discussion of pin numbers and personal cams. Where do issues of privacy and surveillance intersect?

JG: Where indeed? And is it anywhere near the intersection of Surveillance and Exhibitionism?

This is in the category of No Easy Answers—a big category in this book. I kept feeling buffeted by countercurrents. Just when you're most more concerned and most outraged about unprecedented new threats to privacy, you stumble on a new Internet video camera someone's set up in her office or his bedroom, inviting you to be a 24-hour guest and peeping tom. Which doesn't mean there's NOT a threat to privacy. It just means we are complicated and variegated people, not always sure what we want.

I take some positions in this book that I expect to be unpopular. At least I expect them to be difficult. I'll just mention one without explaining: I think it's a mistake to equate privacy and anonymity. I'm a strong believer in the right to privacy, more in the online world than ever. But I make a case that that doesn't mean a right to use false identity as a shield for certain types of public behavior. In support of this argument, I recount some amusing experiences ...

BT: You write at length about Microsoft, their corporate culture, their practices and strategies. Has the climate of the technological industry changed since Microsoft's monopoly case? How?

JG: During the whole era of the book, I had a love-hate relationship with Microsoft. They may have had trouble seeing the love part. We understand the company a lot better now—how it works, how it succeeds, how it effects the whole ecoculture. I think even Microsoft understands itself a lot better than it used to. Still, even now, in 2002, it's impossible to predict what the future holds for this great and terrible company, or what will be left for the rest of us.

BT: You refer to the Internet as an "infrastructure" and even discuss online communities you formed. How do you imagine this infrastructure can unite us globally and has it happened already? Where can it go?

JG: Well, look, I'm a believer in connectedness. Whatever that is, I believe in it as an abstract good, a thing to cherish and a thing to nurture. This is the final theme of the book. It's what everything else points to, in a roundabout way. Actually, it's a little embarrassing, to be a true believer, and I poke fun at myself in the epigraph, from a Dennis Lehane novel: "He had that weird light in his eyes like he believed what he was saying the waysome people believed in God or NASDAQ or the Internet-as-global village."

But the thing about my faith in connectedness is, I don't want to try to explain in a few words. I can't. The roundabout way is best. That's why I wrote a book.

BT: What advancements in technology do you anticipate in the near future?

I'm hoping for a crystal ball. Never too late, eh?

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